Philip Nolan

Top 25 Countdown: No. 20 UConn Huskies

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 20 UConn.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

source: AP
Kevin Ollie and Ryan Boatright (AP Photo)

Head Coach: Kevin Ollie

Last Season: 32-8, 12-6 American (t-3rd), won the National Title

Key Losses: Shabazz Napier, Deandre Daniels, Lasan Kromah, Niels Giffey

Newcomers: Rodney Purvis (transfer), Daniel Hamilton, Sam Cassell Jr.

Projected Lineup

– G: Ryan Boatright, Sr.
G: Rodney Purvis, So.
F: Daniel Hamilton, Fr.
F: Phil Nolan, Jr.
C: Amida Brimah, So.
Bench: Omar Calhoun, Jr.; Sam Cassell Jr., Jr.; Kentan Facey, So.

They’ll be good because … : UConn will enter the season with one of the nation’s most talented back courts. The face of this year’s group is going to be Ryan Boatright. One of the most athletic point guards that you’ll ever come across, Boatright was one of the most important pieces to UConn’s national title run thanks to the nightmarish on-ball defense that he provided for Kevin Ollie’s club. And while Shabazz Napier — and, late in the season, Deandre Daniels, commanded all of the attention, it’s important to note that Boatright averaged 12.4 points, 3.5 boards and 3.4 assists as the No. 3 option.

He’ll be joined by N.C. State transfer Rodney Purvis, a top 20 recruit coming out of high school that spent last season sitting out as a redshirt, and top 30 recruit Daniel Hamilton. Purvis has a chance to be one of the nation’s most improved players this season while Hamilton, the youngest brother of Gary (Miami), Jordan (Texas and now the NBA) and Isaac (UCLA), is a wing forward with a reputation for being a big-time scorer. That trio could match up with any back court in the country. Throw in sophomore Terrance Samuel, who had some big moments during UConn’s national title run, as well as Omar Calhoun and JuCo transfer Sam Cassell Jr., and the Huskies legitimately go six-deep on their perimeter.

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Rodney Purvis (AP Photo)

But they might disappoint because … : As good as their back court is, it will be downright impossible to replace Shabazz Napier. And I’m not just talking about his ability to score or his knack for making a big shot in a bigger moment, I’m talking about the leadership that he provided and his presence in the locker room. Napier was a coach on the floor, a guy that ran this team and commanded the respect of his teammates. Doug McDermott was the rightful National Player of the Year last season, but Napier was every bit as valuable as him.

There are also question marks along UConn’s front line. There is no four-man that will be able to stretch the floor the way that Daniels did last season. Part of the reason that UConn was so difficult to guard was because Daniels could play the four defensively, but he was more-or-less a guard on the offensive end of the floor. Phil Nolan has beefed up this offseason and Amida Brimah has a chance to be the nation’s best shot-blocker at some point during his career, but neither of them are the kind of player that will scare an opposing coach offensively. And if that wasn’t enough, their only back ups are Kentan Facey, who struggled to see the floor as a freshman, and Rakim “Rock” Lubin, an incoming recruit that is built like a bulldozer but that wasn’t ranked in the Class of 2014.

Outlook: Just how good will Ryan Boatright be taking over the reins of this team? He’s a tremendous talent, one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders and a kid that can score 30 on any given night when he gets on a roll offensively, but he’s also a kid that has had maturity issues during his career and a habit of forcing some tough shots.

UConn has won two of the last four national titles thanks to the play of Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier, two of the best point guards that we’ve seen in recent years. But both Walker and Napier had their growing pains early on in their Husky careers. Throw in the fact that Kevin Ollie — and, for that matter, Napier — is more or less the prototype of what it means to be a leader at the point guard spot, and Boatright has spent the past two years learning from the best possible people on how to be the player that the Huskies need him to be this season.

He’ll have talent around him, but if the Huskies are going to win the American this season, it will be on the back of Boatright. It will be interesting, over the next five months, to see if Boatright can live up to those lofty standards.

2014-2015 Season Preview: Ranking the biggest X-Factors

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Kentucky Athletics

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Here is our list of this season’s biggest x-factors.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Kentucky’s buy-in: No team in the country has as much talent on their roster as Kentucky does, but the Wildcats may actually be too deep this season. They’re so deep, in fact, that John Calipari is considering using a platoon system — with five-man shifts — like he is coaching hockey. Eventually, someone’s minutes are going to get cut. Someone is going to have to accept the fact they’re a role player, nothing more than a screener or rebounder or defensive presence. If every Wildcat, from the Harrisons twins to Sam Malone, buys into this idea, Kentucky is going to be very, very tough to beat.

Gonzaga’s defense: Kevin Pangos, now that he’s healthy, is going to have a huge season. Kyle Wiltjer has had a year to develop his body and his game, making him the perfect stretch-four to create space in the paint for Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. Gary Bell, Byron Wesley, Eric McClellan, Josh Perkins, Kyle Draginis. There’s plenty of talent on the Zags, but the issue will be on defense. When Pangos, Wiltjer and Karnowski are on the floor together, Mark Few will have three defensive question marks. Gonzaga is a Final Four caliber team if they get enough stops.

D’angelo Russell, Ohio State: Aaron Craft is Ohio State’s biggest loss, but right up there, oddly enough, is the loss of LaQuinton Ross. The Buckeyes struggled to score last season, and Ross was their most consistent offensive weapon. Russell heads to Columbus with the reputation of being a big time scorer, and while the Buckeyes should, once again, be stout defensively, they’ll need Russell’s pop on the offensive end.

Devonte’ Graham, Kansas: How long have we been asking questions about the Kansas point guard play? That won’t change this season, as Graham, a freshman, and sophomores Frank Mason and Connor Frankamp will try to take the reins. Graham is the most talented of the three, however, and is expected to take over the role.

MORE: Top 25 Potential Breakout Stars | Top 25 Non-Conference Games | Coaches on the Hot Seat

source: Getty Images
Dwayne Polee (Getty Images)

Dwayne Polee, San Diego State: Someone is going to have to replace the offensive production that San Diego State loses with the graduation of Xavier Thames. Polee is not the most talented offensive player on the roster, but he showed quite a bit of promise at the end of last season. SDSU reaches a new level if he becomes a threat as a scorer.

Mark Donnal, Michigan: Michigan’s perimeter is loaded this season, but with Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford all departing, Donnal, a redshirt freshman, is now the veteran presence in the paint for John Beilein. Should I mention that he’s also known as being a shooter, and that he redshirted strictly to add strength?

Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford had promising moments as a freshman with the Bruins, but there were also times where he looked best-suited to being an offensive sparkplug off the bench. This year, the sophomore son of head coach Steve Alford will be handed the reins.

UConn’s big men: UConn has a number of x-factors this season — Can Ryan Boatright be Shabazz or Kemba? How good will Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton be? Is this Omar Calhoun’s bounceback year? But more than anything, UConn’s front line is where the questions lie. Amida Brimah is a terrific shotblocker with the strength of a stalk of bamboo, and Philip Nolan added 25 pounds of muscle but was ‘just a guy’ last season. Losing Deandre Daniels’ inside-outside ability will hurt quite a bit, and while UConn’s guard situation will work itself out, the Huskies need big minutes out of their big men to win the American this year.

Kansas State’s transfers: Marcus Foster has a shot to be a first-team all-american this season, but there are still some questions with his supporting cast. Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas are all expected to take a step forward, and Malek Harris is a four-star addition, but it is a trio of transfers that could make the difference. Justin Edwards could end up being a double-figure scorer on the wing, while Stephen Hurt and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Bolden give Bruce Weber some much-needed height in the paint.

Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State: There’s no questioning Dejean-Jones’ ability to score. He can fill it up when he gets on a roll. His problem is shot selection, and while Iowa State likes to get up and down the floor, Dejean-Jones is going to be the second or third option offensively for the Cyclones. Can he accept that role?

Here are 10 more x-factors

  • Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse: For the third straight season, Syracuse will have just one point guard on their roster, and a freshman to boot. If he Tyler Ennis 2.0?
  • Chris Walker, Florida: A supreme talent at 6-foot-10, for sure, but does he have a clue about how to play basketball?
  • Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, Duke: Cook is the senior starter. Tyus Jones is the hot-shot freshman. Both are talented point guards. Can they play together? What if one has their minutes cut?
  • Kedren Johnson, Memphis: Johnson, who averaged 13.5 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 boards at Vanderbilt in 2012-2013, is the only guard for Memphis that has ever played Division I basketball.
  • Wayne Blackshear and Shaqquan Aaron, Louisville: Montrezl Harrell is an all-american, and Terry Rozier might join him this season. Can Blackshear and/or Aaron provide production from the wing?
  • Yannick Moreira and Keith Frazier, SMU: With no Emmanuel Mudiay, Larry Brown needs these two to improve. Moreira looked great at the FIBA World Cup, while Frazier was a McDonald’s all-american but couldn’t earn a starting spot as a freshman.
  • Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn was the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2012, but he’s yet to be healthy at Providence.
  • Cullen Neal, New Mexico: Neal was impressive at times as a freshman despite playing on a team with three pros while still recovering from an emergency appendectomy.
  • Robert Hubbs, Tennessee: The most talented player on a depleted Tennessee roster struggled with injuries as a freshman.
  • Texas using a 2-3 zone: How effective can Texas be defensively when they have Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley on the floor together?